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Fun you can have with an artificial neural network

Connectionism is the study of artificial neural networks. At the time I did my research, Connectionism was an emerging science: a bit sexy, a bit radical in psychologial and AI circles.

I mention the cultural context in which I worked first, rather than the details of what the discipline was all about, because I am, and always have beem I guess, fascinated by the observation of scientific development. It's like a form of advancedd game play: figure out the rules of the model, and learn to predict what the model will do next.

Connectionism - as a philosophical school of thought - aspired to challenge the then dominant Classical or AI view of mind (the Language of Thought hypothesis), that what we were really talking about when discussing "mind" was a virtual and wholly symbolic virtual machine running on some biological hadware.

Connectionism occupied the messy realms between the purity of symbolic - or Classical - computation and all that squishy biological stuff: so it claimed.

There was much early excitment - in the late 1980s and early 1990s - that Connectionism as a set of techniques and as a philosophical school would contribute significantly to the body of knowledge on "minds" and what sorts of things "minds" might actually be: I wrote about exactly this kind of promise.

At the time I did my research, I didn't get the opportunity to think deeply about the really fundamental question about mental meaning (which seems very amiss of me now I know), which is not whether the mind is a qualitatively differrent kind of thing from a brain (answer: yes of course it is), or even what the naure of the relation between them might be (and that's "representation grounding" as I understood it in my thesis).

The fundamental question is rather what kind of actual, physical thing a mind (or a consciousness, if you like) actually is?

Let's be clear: we must acknowledge minds as real, physical entities. They must be to have real causative connections with the brain, with the physical stuff of the body. If minds are real (and they are), and they're not ghosts, spirits or souls, they are going to be real things. So what kind of real things are they?

It's sometimes wierd talking about minds (and my mind in particular) at a distance from the thing. "I'm not a mind, I'm me. And I know exatly what it is like to be me. And being me is not like being some wierd energy field, OK?"

Ah, but you are: you believe yourself to be you, a unique, discrete entity. But your manifestation in the physical Universe is as a coherent form of energy. What coherent form of eneregy? Are minds coherent magnetic or elecrical fields? Or are they some more esoteric kind of matter? There is no definitive answer yet, but lots of interesting options.

Fascinating things to read
Have a look at my reading list too - these are all there, but these are the juiciest and most mind-blowing.

Capra, F. (1975) The Tao of Physics. Flamingo. ISBN: 0 00 654489 4
Capra, F. (1977) The Web of Life. Flamingo. ISBN: 0 00 654489 4
Bateson, G. (1979) Mind and Nature. Hampton Press. ISBN: 1 57273 434 5
Dennett, D. (1991) Consciousness Explained. Penguin.
Dawkins, D. (199) The Extended Phenotype. OUP. 0 19 286088 7

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